What are the characteristics of a successful short story?
1) Starting with the obvious, a short story is short! But how short is this particular piece of string? Short stories submitted for the Nebula Awards should have a world count of less than 7,500. Two of the three winners of the BBC National Short Story Award match this parameter: the inaugural winner, James Lasdun’s An Anxious Man at 6328 words and last year’s winner, Clare Wigfall’s The Numbers at 5575. I can’t find the Richard Gough’s 2007 winner online to confirm the word count.
At the EIBF 2009, James Lasdun, Valerie Martin and Nadeem Aslam discussed the art of the short story. Here are other characteristics of a short story that I gleaned from that discussion.
2) A short story will often skip right to the action and the accelerated pace will be maintained throughout. The word count restriction means that there simply isn’t time for a full narrative arc: exposition, complication, rising action, crisis, climax, resolution.
3) No morality. If there is any element of the good being rewarded and the wicked punished, the story is a fable or a parable.
4) There will be one central event or idea. According to Nadeem Aslam this is often an idea that would lose something if the story were to be extended into a novel. Or something against which readers would rebel. The example he gave was of 2 lovers pining for each other but never meeting. A short story could carry that. In a novel it wouldn’t be tolerated – and he’s right – did anyone rebel against the ending of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin?
4) Short stories are more intense than novels. James Lasdun thought that short stories should deal with hammerblows: a single act of cruelty, a single act of self-discovery. The cruelty in the short stories of Poe is palpable, visceral even. This point harmonises well with Colm Toibin’s view that a successful short story should leave the reader with a shudder. Valerie Martin, who adores Chekhov’s later works, referred to intense emotions that could not be sustained during a novel. Stefan Zweig’s novel Beware of Pity failed for me precisely for that reason. Not that the author couldn’t sustain the writing of intense emotions, this reader simply couldn’t sustain the reading of them!
5) Short stories are to novels what chamber music is to an orchestra. There are fewer parts, cleaner thematic lines, more intimacy.
6) Short stories are a sophisticated art form and are harder to write than novels. Valerie Martin: It takes longer to work the angles to achieve the compression. James Lasdun: It takes longer to determine the angle that will refresh a basic element of narrative.
7) Authors must trust their readers more. Nadeem Aslam, who is just beginning to write short stories, talked about his novel The Wasted Vigil, where the impulse of a certain action (I haven’t read it, so I can’t give detail) is described in Chapter 3. 70 pages later, in chapter 7, the act follows. In a short story, that episode would occur simply as a jolt, with the reader filling in the blanks.
Do you agree with the panel? I’m no expert on short story reading but during my Short Story September I shall bear these points in mind …..
…. and if you want to join me, there’s still time to enter my short story giveaway or even read some excellent short stories on the BBC National Short Story website, including the aforementioned 2006 and 2008 winners.